As Geoff Dyer put it in a recent New Yorker article, this is “a time when everything non-COVID-related seems pointless.” The prospect of imminent suffering and worse has grabbed our complete attention. But we are learning something now that can be crucial, if we take it to heart, once this pandemic is over: We’re learning the cost of delay.

COVID-19’s potential for catastrophe was apparent to government advisers in early January. Yet in Washington, the administration waited until mid-March to announce social distancing measures. In that time, known cases in the United States increased from zero to over 3,000. Now the number is over 1.5 million. The number of deaths in this country has surpassed Italy’s to become the highest in the world. This is the cost of delay.

When we emerge from this pandemic, we might notice a similarity, though on a different time scale, between the COVID pandemic and climate change. Both have been made more severe by delay.

Warnings about climate change were becoming specific in the early 1980s. George Mitchell, then U.S. senator from Maine, said in 1986: ”The enormity of this phenomenon is staggering, and we have a responsibility to limit emissions of pollutants that trap the heat in our atmosphere. As difficult, as immense, and as seemingly remote as the problem is to our daily lives, we cannot delay.” But, of course, we did delay. In the 34 years since Sen. Mitchell’s speech, our fossil fuel emissions have doubled and the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased from 350 parts per million to 415 ppm. A problem that might have been managed by gradual changes in 1986 has now become an emergency. Scientists have warned that the acceleration of ice loss and other effects of climate change have brought the world “dangerously close” to abrupt and irreversible changes.

Our city councils, in Portland and South Portland, have recognized this emergency, and are preparing a joint climate action plan. When it’s released, later this summer, One Climate Future will give the citizens of these two cities the opportunity to help solve this problem. Even if social distancing rules are still in place, there are actions we can take.

As we begin to reopen from the pandemic lockdown, we can return our focus to the most significant threat our planet faces: climate change. Continued burning of fossil fuels will raise the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and drive temperatures around the world to unprecedented levels. This threatens our lives in many ways: Rendering parts of the Earth uninhabitable, raising sea levels enough to swamp global cities, spreading tropical diseases worldwide, threatening global food supplies, causing drought in some areas and flood in others and making forest fires more frequent, deadly and damaging.

Social distancing to control the spread of COVID will probably last for months. Climate change will last for centuries.  If it doesn’t affect some of us directly, it will certainly affect our children and grandchildren. I have two grandsons. I can picture them asking me what I did when I learned how climate change would affect them. I want to know that I did everything I could to ensure that the Earth my generation leaves to them will be one I would want to live in.

Sometimes it seems that we humans need to experience a catastrophe before we respond to it. Our nation’s delayed response to COVID-19 would appear to support that. When it comes to climate change, we need to do better: We cannot delay. By the time we experience catastrophic effects, the built-in lags will mean that the effects will get much worse. We can avoid that fate, but we have to get going. Now.  If we learn that from the COVID pandemic, it won’t be a total loss.

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